Asa part of my series about the women in wellness, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Orie Achonwa. Dr. Achonwa is a clinical researcher, professor, published author, and highly sought-after on-air expert with appearances on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, The Brian Tracy Show, eHealth Radio, among others. She’s the founder of next generation wellness beauty brand MD Nourish and a number of award-winning and recognized innovations in the healthcare space. She enjoys sharing her love of plant-based living with others and listening to 90s R&B on repeat.
Thank you so much for doing this with us Dr. Achonwa! What is your “backstory”?
Igrew up on a farm in the outskirts of Dallas, TX in a wonderfully creative family. My favorite childhood memories are listening to my uncles and brothers play acoustic guitar and helping my mom make moisturizers and other goods with what we gathered from the fields.
While we worked away in the kitchen after a harvest, my mom, who is a nurse-midwife, taught me a lot about how to use the different parts of plants for various remedies. Literally, an early education in plant medicine. She’s very knowledgeable in this area due to her midwifery background and also skills passed down to her from my grandmother. I didn’t get to meet my grandmother before she passed but I knew her to be a West African businesswoman who sold goods in her delicacies shop that she handmade using ingredients from her garden.
Unfortunately, I left this lifestyle behind when my family moved to Houston, TX during my primary school years. I enjoyed the city but when I was diagnosed with a hormonal disorder called polycystic ovarian syndrome, or PCOS, I was forced to reconsider my lifestyle. As I learned more about what causes hormonal imbalances, from genetics to chemicals found in the products I used every day, I became hyperfocused on naturally improving my health. The things that I learned and rediscovered at this time indulged my creative side. Eventually, I started making foods and skincare from plants and butters just like I used to do with my mom as a little girl.
One day, a coworker I’ve been talking to about my lifestyle changes nudged me to give a talk on the subject at the hospital’s community classroom. I’m so happy he mentioned it. This very event planted the seed that has grown into what is now MD Nourish.
Can you share your top three “lifestyle tweaks” that you believe will help support people’s journey towards better wellbeing?
At the top of my list is to lean towards a plant-based lifestyle. Notice that I said “lifestyle” and not just plant-based foods or plant-based cosmetics or skincare. This is important because what we eat nourishes every cell of our bodies and what we put on our skin eventually circulates within our bodies. For this reason, it is best to make the move to plant-based products for the body inside and out. Doing one without the other is like driving a car without an engine, you won’t get anywhere.
My second recommendation is to use food for nourishment and not to comfort yourself. It’s easy to fall into the trap of responding to every emotion with food because it is accessible and always there for you. However, this habit is the fast track to all the extra calories, salts, sugars, and chemicals that are at the root of health issues like diabetes, hypertension, obesity, high cholesterol, etc. To break free from this habit, have a go-to activity that you can access as easily as food when you need the fix (e.g., journaling, music, dance, exercise, etc).
Thirdly, digital detox for part of the day. Stress, anxiety, and angst are common complaints for people these days. While there are many reasons why these exist, one factor that is easy to modify is our plugged-in lives. Disconnecting every evening will help you to slow the pace of your day so you can finally exhale.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
An event organizer reached out and invited us to host a pop-up at a festival. The brand was still a baby and I wasn’t sure that we were ready for this type of presentation. Even though I wanted to turn down the offer, I knew we couldn’t pass up the opportunity so we went for it. Luckily, we found a group of girls that were really into our products within the first few people we met at the festival. They told us exactly how they felt about our brand and we took it all in. It was invaluable market research! They also stood around us for some time and brought a lot of traffic our way. I’m forever grateful to those four girls. To this day I still have no idea why they were so generous to us. I think they could tell that we were very green and they just wanted to help a young brand grow its wings.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Before the full MD Nourish collection came into existence, I formulated one product that was not really launched but more like passed around. Somehow it got into the hands of a magazine editor and it won a Beauty Award from a New York publication. I was pretty stoked because the product won alongside industry leading brands like Tata Harper and Jurlique. As my excitement grew, I jumped ahead of my R&D schedule and started making products one after the other. Halfway in, I quickly realized that we had to reduce our SKUs by about 70 percent because the collection was incohesive and we couldn’t support each product properly. This was one of the most valuable lessons I learned in the early days. This flop taught me that a brand is not just about coming up with the next product. If you can’t deliver a comprehensive educational experience for the end consumer with the product release then you’re not ready to launch. We still have many products in our pipeline that were pulled back from that time.
When it comes to health and wellness, how is the work you are doing helping to make a bigger impact in the world?
This generation is health conscious because they’ve grown up watching family members suffer from health problems and they are very much aware of how nutrition, exercise, and positive lifestyle choices influence their overall quality of life. For many, organic and green are not exceptions, they are expectations. While this is the modern attitude towards health and wellness, our environment hasn’t changed in this direction. For this reason, my vision for the brand is to make it a high-quality wellness experience that’s accessible to the masses. My hope is that our products and education give people the means to take charge of their health in a world that doesn’t yet support their good intentions. This is especially important to me because I see how people let themselves go and end up with debilitating health conditions all the time. If I can help more people take daily actions to maintain their good health and steer clear of preventable conditions like diabetes, hypertension, and obesity then I would have achieved everything I set out to do by creating MD Nourish.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I would not be where I am today without the support of my younger brother Nwan. In 2013 I decided to shift my focus from designing for the clinical space to the consumer health market after a decade of creating products and inventions like a health surveillance system that helps clinicians make timely care and treatment decisions for patients. The consumer health market functions differently than the healthcare system and I didn’t know how to break in. My brother, who has an IT and marketing background, helped me shorten my learning curve. I learned so much from him (even though he is my younger brother). He helped me wrap my head around the psychographics of the health-conscious crowd and how to connect with them in a way that adds value.
Also, he’s been the one person that I can count on through this journey, particularly when there wasn’t really a brand yet. He’s always showed up to help me any way he can. For example, when I had an event in Los Angeles a year ago, I asked him to come with me and he fully committed himself to do so without any details about where we’re going and what he’ll be doing. The way he believes in me and what I do motivates me to work seven days a week to make MD Nourish all that it could be.
If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of wellness to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would start a movement that gets people back in sync with nature because there are too many health compromising chemicals in the products we pick up on the high street. Whether you’re eating, applying, or cleaning with them, your toxic body burden is increasing every day. That’s concerning. I’ve heard arguments about how this product or that product is not toxic because it contains such and such chemical at small amounts. It’s a clever play on the dose-response relationship that makes people look the other way. However, what we really need to focus on is the collective impact of all the chemical-laden products we use and how they add up to one heavy blow to our system. It’s insane. Going back to nature as much as possible is your best bet for safeguarding your health because these types of products aren’t going away anytime soon as they make the big guys’ pockets fat.
What are your “3 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
In the early days, I skewed too heavily towards communicating features rather than selling the lifestyle one could have through the rituals our products create. In some ways, it is hard to think about “selling” wellness but it is a product which means that you have to romanticize it to the end consumer like Coco does Chanel. In the world of wellness, people get that they should take care of their health but they don’t always know if they should part with their money and time for this or that practice. That’s where your selling comes into play. I had a business coach during our rebranding in 2017 who finally got this idea into my head.
I also wish someone told me to niche down 10X. The wellness industry is evolving daily and it’s been crossing over into many sectors ever since “self-care” became a thing. With that said, it’s not enough to just say you have a wellness brand, you have to define your specialty within wellness. Doing so will help your customers find you and will also help you to know where you’re going when your brand is in the diversification stage. If you don’t define your specialty, you will start adding on secondary products and services that check the box of wellness but do nothing for your business because they’re not what your customers need from you. Specializing is a must!
The third thing I wished someone told me is to meet with business coaches, inner circles, and mastermind groups for six months to a year before starting a business. There are so many things to consider when running a business and you’re not going to figure it out yourself. Why would you want to take that risk when there are so many online and offline support groups that will literally give you the blueprint for everything you need to get your business going? Of course, some come with hefty price tags but you can also find a few that are less than $100 a month. I started with these and I got far more value from them than the support groups led by the industry’s titans. I think people always want to join these luminary groups first but the reality is that you’re not ready to swim with those sharks yet. Those groups teach strategies for people with Ferrari marketing budgets when your budget is more like a Hyundai. When you’re starting, you only need to find a group that is a few steps ahead of where you are. They will teach how to play at your level.
Do you have a “girl-crush” in this industry? If you could take one person to brunch, who would it be? (Let another “woman in wellness” know that you respect her as a teacher and guide! )
Michelle Obama. During the Obama’s time in office she leveraged her position to spark a long overdue conversation about nutrition and health in America. She will always be remembered for her Let’s Move campaign and town halls on this topic but I think that her real accomplishment was creating the springboard that gave other nutrition and health initiatives of the past decade the momentum to leap forward. Her voice was vital for many people working at the grassroots level to move the agenda on improving nutrition and health in their communities. It’s hard to make health, especially preventive health, a top of mind priority on the scale that she did. I admire her for seeing this issue as a solvable problem and rallying the nation to do something about it.
Sustainability, veganism, mental health and environmental changes are big topics at the moment. Which one of these causes is dearest to you, and why?
Veganism is dearest to me. It has made people more critical about what they are eating or using on their bodies. It’s also inspired more creativity with plants so they fit into the way we live today. If you spend just five minutes on a vegan or plant-based blog you will learn two or three new ways to add more vegetables to your diet that are simple and many times inexpensive. This exchange of ideas about what veganism or plant-based living could look like has encouraged more people to make health-positive changes in their lives. I hope this trend sticks around.
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Thank you for these fantastic insights!